Enter Into Joy

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Be here now

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

“A mind that likes to wander ’round the corner is an unwise mind” – George Harrison.

Meditation teacher and author Eknath Easwaran was once asked what Rodin’s Thinker was pondering. “Easy,” he said – “why can’t I stop thinking?”  How many times have I awakened in the dark, to replay or rehearse some unpleasant scenario over and over and over? My mind has a million ways to defy discipline. I think I need to solve problems, or maybe just relax with a daydream, but without careful control, I often just follow the mind into unhappy territory.

A recent report by Harvard psychologists, reviewed by John Tierney in the November 15 New York Times, is an interesting study of what makes people happy. The study was by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, and published in the November issue of Science magazine as: “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.”

The psychologists got 2,200 volunteers to download an iPhone app (“trackyourhappiness”) that called them randomly during the day to ask them how they are feeling and what they are doing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 0.5% of the people who were having sex were the happiest, at least until the phone rang. They were also the most focused.  

“When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being “very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).”

The psychologists found that even if you’re doing something enjoyable, you aren’t protected from negative thoughts. The rate of mind-wandering is lower, but when it wanders, it’s just as likely to wander toward negative thoughts.

The corollary of the study title is that a focused mind is a happy mind.  When Karen sent me pictures from Africa, I couldn’t help but notice how much happier the poor villagers in Malawi looked, compared to the typical Americans at a shopping mall.  Perhaps the lack of possessions brings one closer to God.  Or maybe the lack of distractions (e.g., iPhones) makes it easier to focus.
— Kelly Nash

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Few Good Men

Dad and me in our yard in Columbus, Nebraska

Ever since the MasterMind news, I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot. For most of my life, I’ve directed gratitude for the better part of me to Mom, and to the universe of women around her – my aunts, Mom’s friends.

But somehow the MasterMind competition and win took me directly to Dad. I mean, upon the news, I was happy. I thought – “This is cool. The Observer is cool.” Then I felt some disappointment that some get named, some don’t. Then I thought of how this might help us with 29 Pieces and Today Marks the Beginning. Then my mind settled on Dad, and the other men in my life who have encouraged me, pushed me, pushed me back sometimes, helped me, fed me, gave me confidence. 

But today it’s about Dad. Dad was from a very poor family of 11 brothers and sisters. (I have 53 first cousins.) His Mom spoke only German, gave birth to at least 13 children. 11 survived infancy. My grandparents had a hard time feeding this huge family and local stories say that Grandma would walk into town and beg for food for her children.

Dad was smart, capable and shrewd in many ways. But like my Mom, and many children in rural America in the early 20th century, he was not schooled past the eighth grade.

He worked first as a farm hand, and developed skills to be a talented finish carpenter.

He was 6 ft. 2 in., lean and had an angular, handsome quality. He served in the army in World War II and came back from the European and North African front with back injuries that bothered him for the rest of his life. He didn’t talk about the war, except to laugh about some of the funny stories of his buddies and grumble about the VA.

Though now I know that these experiences were visceral to him, to me – as a child, World War II seemed like another time, another place. I had no idea of what made him the man he was.

Dad came back from the war, worked for my Mom’s parents on their farm. By this time, Dad was in his late 30’s, Mom in her early 40’s. Mom was still living with her parents – working on their farm. They got together . . . I never heard any stories of their courtship or their wedding. Mom got pregnant with me. Five months later, they got married, and I was their only child.

Just like every family, this unfolded as a complicated story. Mom showered me with love and attention. Dad saw something in me, and had the initiative to go through a process of having me enrolled in school early. While Mom would’ve been ok with a passing report card, Dad would raise his eyebrows at an A-. He wasn’t pushing me beyond my capabilities, he was pushing me to them. He made it cool to be a brainy girl, cool to excel.

There were times that Dad could frighten me. His temper and sarcasm were sometimes close to the surface. But in regards to my grades and achievements, he guided me with a light touch.

He dove right into science projects with me. One year, my friend Karen Bembry and I were doing a model of a power plant and we had to lock him out of the room where we were working . . . he had become so involved in the project that he wanted to do it!

When it came time to go to college, I was waffling between being a math or art major. Dad could’ve reacted as a cautious parent – even as Mom did – encouraging me to stay in my small town, and find a secure future – working in a factory, or as a secretary. But he encouraged me to be an artist, to stick with it, to do what I loved.

Later, as fortunate things began to happen in my life and career, Dad carried the newspaper articles in his wallet, and showed them to people. When I went through his wallet when he was dying of lung cancer, I found one of the articles and thought – “there may never be another person who carries a story about me so closely.”

He would’ve been grinning ear to ear with the MasterMind competition, because after all that effort of checking my math problems and proofing my essays, it was his kid who earned that label.

Carl Blessen during World War II
He was a complicated man. Our relationship was good but not perfect. Dad taught me to ride a bike, he taught me to drive a car, and he taught me to fly.
— Karen Blessen, written Nov. 23, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

I am an Artist

TEXAS ARTISTS TODAY, with preface by James Surls
The other evening I went to a book signing at a Contemporary Arts Gallery. It was the usual scene, lots of trendy looking people (+ me) walking around with glasses of white wine in their hands and 12 year old waifs walking with trays of canap├ęs for you not to munch on. The book itself was an elaborate affair, (not so much coffee table size as dining room table size) . . . a photo book entitled  “Texas Artists Today.” The book's contents consist of photographs of current renowned Texas artists and their work. The thing that caught my eye however was that there were several book signing tables where the people behind them had name tags on that stated “I am an Artist” with their page number in the book, the idea being that you would take your newly purchased book and they would sign their particular page, thus increasing the value and desirability of your book. Curious, I spoke to one of the signers and asked her how long she had been an artist, she replied “since the age of 9.” Now to me, every child at the age of 9 is an artist, but she had persisted and had shows in several notable venues. The point being that the notable thing about this collection of “artists” was not their artistic abilities, but their grasp of what to do with your efforts to get them noticed by the white whine set.
— John Katz

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Entering into Joy (gratitude)

Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2010: The street looking east

Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with all our busy thoughts about earth, sea, and air;

if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still;

if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:

Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;

so that we should hear not his word through the tongues of men, nor the voice of angels, nor the clouds' thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things:

And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:

Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?

— By Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine was born in North Africa in 354 and lived into the last stages of collapse of the Roman Empire. His Confessions, one of the world's great pieces of autobiographical literature, tells the story of a brilliant, passionate young man who learned to channel all his passions toward God. This translation from book 9, chapter 10, is by Michael N. Nagler.

From God Makes The Rivers To Flow, Sacred literature of the world selected by Eknath Easwaran, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation; third edition 2008, reprinted by permission of Nilgiri Press, P. O. Box 256, Tomales, Ca  94971, www.easwaran.org.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monumental Minimalist

Artist Jun Kaneko - the 13 foot tall Dangos are prepared for drying.
The sculptures dry for a year before they are bisque fired to harden to clay. 

Nebraska artist Jun Kaneko makes the largest freestanding ceramic objects in the world. Here he talks about the spiritual skills, and the sense of adventure, required by an artist.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I hear a murmur

John Katz and Kevin Althans at the Murmur site

I hear a murmur

Railroad trains, clunking metal,
wind through the holes in
the building.

Cathedral ceiling.
A blotted history. What
                  happened here hurt
                  people, poisoned the
                  soil, poisoned people.

It sits waiting.
Could this be the home
                  of 29 Pieces?
A Phoenix rising?
Beauty, spirit, wise
                  colossal reminders
                  emerging from this
                  stained landmark?

There’s a softness present,
                  A quietness . . . something . . .
                  Something like a murmur.
                  Something like home.


But hold on. You can’t move in
                  yet. There are formalities.
                  There are rings to exchange,
                  vows to be made, papers
                  to be drawn up + signed.

Patience, patience, patience.
— Karen Blessen

Friday, November 19, 2010

Art & Commerce 2

Annie Liebovitz

There is an instructional article in the Financial Times titled: How Annie got shot. It tells how famous photographer Annie Leibovitz, while spending her illustrious career photographing famous celebs, along the way ignored her accumulating photographic legacy. Recently, after getting into enormous financial difficulties by ignoring the fine print, (a common failing amongst creatives), she has now belatedly tried to capitalize on her vast portfolio of iconic images in order to climb out of the financial hole she finds herself in. So far it doesn’t appear to be working. Her photographs don’t fetch anywhere near the sums commanded by Avedon, Penn, Steichen and the like. There are various theories why this is.  But amongst the most telling appears to me to be her historical snubbing of gallery owners and art dealers who used to vie for her work and attention. Now that the shoe is on the other foot they appear to be disinclined to cooperate. This may pass. It does illustrate the need, even if you happen to be very famous and busy, not to let bridges fall into disrepair that you might need to cross one day.

— John Katz


Monday, November 15, 2010

Dallas Observer MasterMind Awards

On November 11, 2010, 29 Pieces artist Karen Blessen was one of three Dallas artists to win the Dallas Observers first annual "MasterMinds" creativity award. Following is the part of the article about Karen:
Dallas Observer photo by Danny Fulgencio

Karen Blessen - artist, peace advocate

(by Elaine Liner, Thursday, Nov 11 2010, Dallas Observer, from “MasterMinds: Matthew Posey, Joel Hester and Karen Blessen Are Winners in Our Inaugural Creativity Awards”)

She didn't hear the gunshot that killed the stranger on her front lawn in Lakewood late one night in 2000. But for the next three years, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen thought of little else but the murder of 26-year-old David McNulty. She immersed herself in chronicling the effects of that random act of violence on McNulty's family and friends, and on those who knew the perpetrators, including the killer himself. She wrote about all of it in a long article titled "One Bullet," published in 2003 in The Dallas Morning News.

After that, Blessen says, she needed a way to heal from those "three dark years" and turn her creative energies in a different, more positive direction. She began a meditation practice she still follows that requires memorization of lines of sacred texts. No more Law & Order episodes before bedtime; in fact, no more TV at all. More exercise and a healthier diet brought even more clarity.

In 2006 came what Blessen calls her "creative burst." Over several months early that year, she built a series of shoebox-sized sculptures—"happy collages," she calls them—she would title 29 Pieces. A collection of tiny assemblages and script-covered tableaux amid swatches of cloth, pieces of twig, glass, beads and wire, they contain bits of writing by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. There are lines from Psalms and from prayers in Lakota Sioux language. The first piece says this: "If the very world should stop...."

That phrase, which came to Blessen in meditation, was her cue, she says, to reevaluate everything in her life. Was she where she wanted to be spiritually? Artistically? Personally? "The art and writing just poured out after that," she says. "It was as if a portal had opened."

After 30 years as an illustrator and graphic artist (her Pulitzer in 1989 was for work published in the Morning News), Blessen, now 58, says she "put down the colored pencils and started down a different path." Having seen the effects of violence on her own doorstep, she became an advocate for peace and for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. She is the co-founder, with her friend Dr. Barbara Miller, of a nonprofit organization called Today Marks the Beginning, which uses art to promote peace and to raise public awareness of social issues. This fall the organization received $30,000 raised at the annual Art Conspiracy event.

Within Today Marks The Beginning is a program Blessen created and still directs called MasterPEACE, which sends volunteers, including artists, musicians, actors, writers and yoga masters into eight public and private schools in Dallas to teach lessons on peace to fifth-graders. Students learn about "Heroes of Peace," including Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and others, and they're guided through studies in the meanings of love, empathy, consequences and harmony, which they then translate into art pieces using simple tools and found objects. Blessen has helped get students' art displayed publicly, including an exhibit at the Dallas Public Library. Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center will host a show of 30 student-created MasterPEACE artworks reflecting "love" in February 2011.

Janet Perera, counselor at DISD's L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary, says the MasterPEACE program has had a profoundly positive effect on her school's students over the past four years. There are 1,000 kids enrolled at Hotchkiss, many of them children of recent refugees from African and Asian countries. More than 30 languages are spoken in the school.

"Many of these children have been highly traumatized in their lives," Perera says, "and Ms. Blessen's creative programs help traumatized children feel better about themselves and gain coping strategies." In addition to art, the children do yoga lessons, garden and develop relationships with volunteers. "They've just come from refugee camps, many of them," Perera says, "so it just makes them feel good that people care about them."

Former Hotchkiss principal Lea Beach says she believes MasterPEACE could have great impact beyond Blessen and her organization's art lessons, "though they are phenomenal in their own right." Beach would like to see Blessen's program expanded beyond the few elementary schools where it's now being used. "Our society is going through a huge change," says Beach, who now works with a nonprofit after-school program called HeartHouse Dallas. "With immigrants moving into our communities, it's going to cause a cultural shift. We're going to have to learn to get along together. I have seen refugee children learn ways to stop bullying and teasing through this program. But many children, not just refugees, are dealing with horrific situations and they could be helped, too."

At Parish Episcopal, a private school in North Dallas, counselor Vicki Millican has invited Blessen to teach several MasterPEACE sessions to middle-schoolers. The goal, Millican says, is "to help our students gain a deeper understanding of empathy and learn to find more peace in their lives....I am quite certain that their participation has made an indelible impression on them that will lead them to think and act more peacefully throughout their lives."

And that's precisely the point, Blessen says. "We're showing children how creativity can help us slow down and make some better choices. The very act of creating brings children to a calmer state."

That's the same effect making the 29 Pieces had on Blessen, after all. "When the murder happened, I knew something had changed," she says. "For three years I listened to people affected by one act of senseless violence. It had been a blip on Fox news, four paragraphs in the paper. But it just touched me deeply to discover the value and cost of one life. After those years of exploring things that were disturbing and dark in the world, I suddenly had a profound and transcendent experience that I expressed in the 29 Pieces. Now I want to share that."

In her cozy studio in Deep Ellum, Blessen has been working on a long-term project to expand the 29 Pieces to larger-than-room-size multimedia installations. With an estimated budget for the sculpture of $3.5 million, the super-sized 29 Pieces will become a traveling exhibit, or, if she can find the right building, a permanent installation similar to Donald Judd's massive Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

"It's time for artists to work on a larger scale," she says. "Art is going to manifest in ways we can't even anticipate yet."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Just Sticks

You Can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop, Phase 1, March 3rd - April 27, 2010

Bamboo: the fastest growing plant on earth . . . this grass is stronger than steel, yet versatile, flexible, and plentiful. Pandas won’t eat anything other than its shoots. I have a friend who just paid $85.00 for a custom case made out of the stuff for his iPhone. Thor Heyerdahl could have made his raft out of it (but didn’t). And if you plant it in your garden and it takes hold, it is almost impossible to get rid of, but looks nice anyway. The Starn brothers (identical twins - Doug and Mike) are two inventive photographers with a long history of looking at everyday objects in a sometimes startling way. They've done an installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, (amongst other places) that takes bamboo into new realms. It might be “just sticks” but it's what you do with them (to state the obvious) that counts. Check it out at: http://www.starnstudio.com/

— John Katz

Friday, November 5, 2010

Going the Distance

Matthew Ngui | Singapore/ Australia b.1962 | Swimming: at least 8 points of view 2007
I swim 3 miles a week. I have been doing this for a long time. The older I get the longer it takes me to do this distance, but I still do it. My slightly obsessive nature might account for some of this activity, but not all of it. Making a decision to start a project might be an easy or difficult act, depending on a person’s personality traits. Sticking to the project is the difficult part, as has been quoted by Jeanne-Claude, (the wife of Christo) “The concept is easy. Any idiot can have a good idea. What is hard is to do it.”

Not only is the hard part doing it, the even harder part is sticking to the truth of your original idea, and seeing that undiluted idea through to its conclusion. I have yet to hear an interview with either a film or theater director who has stated that their finished product is the exact vision that they had when they started out. And these are famous people who, in the case of film directors, have final cut privileges and editorial control. So to be involved in a project that might have the chance of being realized with its original intent intact is rare indeed, and an incentive to go the distance.
— John Katz

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dallas Observer Masterminds

Dallas Observer Names Nine Dallas Artists as Finalists in Its First Annual Masterminds Award

Times are tough all around, and especially for artists. Grant money is scarce and patron support isn't what it was during boom times.

Why not offer Dallas artists and creative entrepreneurs a shot at some money and a bit of buzz-generating publicity? Dallas Observer's first MasterMinds competition, launched in September, is doing just that by awarding no-strings-attached prizes of $2,000 to each of three local artists working in a variety of media—visual arts, performance, video, film and arts advocacy. The goal: To honor cultural innovators with funds to do with as they choose, whether it's seed money for a new project or just to pay rent. OK, it's not a MacArthur Genius Grant. At least not yet. But we hope the money will allow the winners a little breathing room on their bills, or even inspire them to help out a fellow artist in need. (This year's winners will participate in choosing next year's prize recipients.)

We received more than 70 submissions during the month-long nomination period. The nine finalists, chosen by a panel of Dallas Observer editors and critics, all contribute considerable energy and talent to Dallas' cultural landscape. From this group, we'll choose the three winners who will be profiled in a cover story November 11. We'll celebrate them and all the finalists on Saturday, November 13, from 8-11 p.m. at our first Artopia event in Victory Park, where many of the finalists' work will be on view. Hope to see you there.

(Note from KB . . . OK - I'm only reprinting my bit here. Go to The Dallas Observer online to read about the other 8 finalists):

Karen Blessen
Artist, writer, teacher and peace advocate Karen Blessen saw her life and career take a dramatic shift after an act of violence left a stranger dead on her front lawn in Lakewood a decade ago. She says she spent "three dark years" chronicling the effects of the murder on the victim's family and friends as well as the families of the perpetrators.

After publication of the story she wrote and illustrated titled "One Bullet," she felt the need to shift her creative energies into a more positive direction. Immersion in a meditation practice that includes memorizing lines of sacred texts resulted in a creative burst. Over several months, Blessen built a series of small sculptures titled 29 Pieces, a collection of assemblages and script-covered tableaux that contain bits of text by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. Her long-term plan is to recreate each piece into a huge room-size (or larger) multimedia installation that will become a traveling exhibit. "It's time for artists to work on a larger scale," she says. "Art is going to manifest in ways we can't even anticipate yet."

A Pulitzer winner in 1989 for her work as a graphic artist at The Dallas Morning News, Blessen, 58, now is dedicated to using "art to create awareness of social issues." She's the co-founder of the nonprofit Today Marks the Beginning, which uses art and the teaching of art to promote peace and justice. She started and now manages the sister program MasterPEACE, which teaches lessons in non-violence and peace through artistic expression to classes of fifth-graders in eight Dallas-area schools. Using yoga masters, actors, musicians and other artists, MasterPEACE introduces students to Heroes of Peace, including Gandhi, Mother Teresa and others. Blessen has had these kids' art pieces—much of it constructed from found objects—displayed publicly and published in coffee-table book form.
— By Elaine Liner

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who are the mystics?

Vision Mosaic - DART Baylor Station, Dallas - Karen Blessen
Not long ago, I participated in an on-line discussion of dowsing (or “water-witching”) on a science discussion board. Several of us knew it has no scientific basis, but had experiences where it seemed to work. I was surprised by the vitriolic responses from the “rationalists” on the board, who said things like “we should not even discuss this here”, and “this is an example of the lousy state of education in the U.S.”, and even “it is our job to crucify the believers of this nonsense”. They sounded like the Taliban. And I was reminded of that experience again, when I was invited a few evenings back to a small get-together with Jim Finley, an author and therapist who spent many years in a monastery with Thomas Merton. A mother in the group spoke about her son, who had embraced atheism. He was pointing out to her some writings of Carl Sagan, who had a lot of negative opinions of religion, and yet spoke in a spiritual sense about the universe and man’s place in it. Mr. Finley said her son sounds like a spritual atheist, as opposed to a fundamentalist atheist. An atheist can have a genuine disagreement with religion, but a fundamentalist atheist will start arguments.

Most people have a few mystical experiences during their life. The experiences make a big impression, which usually wears off and we go back to our daily routines. The mystics are permanently transformed. There are some common characteristics of mystics - abandoning selfish attachments, and practicing nonviolence, for example. (Mysticism is pretty well covered in Wikipedia.)  

The discussion is apropos to the 29 Pieces project, which represents the words of ancient mystics with large sculptures. The project is in its early stages, and this blog aims to document the thoughts and progress of some of the folks involved with it. Some people are very suspicious of anything to do with “mystics”, whom Sagan said dealt with magic, the occult and superstition. I understand the suspicion.  People draw different lines for their beliefs. When it comes to matters of art, however, it seems to me that many of the great artists are themselves mystics.  What grabs a viewer instantly is not a good technical reproduction of a horse, but a vision that reminds them of some archetypal “truth”, that they understand viscerally. If you don’t believe in the words of mystics, such as St. Francis or Gandhi, OK. But your appreciation of art and poetry will be awfully limited too.

Once the sculptures are built, they will speak for themselves. And that tells me not to worry about the mystically-challenged, who may also be missing this amazing passage written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836:
“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”

- Kelly Nash

Monday, November 1, 2010

Defying Sorrow

An invisible thread divides daylight from dark.

Stars fall on either side.

Each one kisses the other when its time comes.

Troubles of day give way to restfulness of night;

Terrors of night finally receive the light of day

Each does its part to defy sorrow, protesting its claim to hold an eternal grip — by sailing right through it.

The way from sorrow to joy is a chartless course, its length uncertain and its path unique for every traveler. 

Everyone will go this way, but not alone.

Sun, moon, and stars unmade by human hands map out, not the way, but the certainty of the infinite power of change that lives in the world.

So just as night turns to day and day to night making their difference melt at a single point, “never let me be burdened by the sorrow of not starting again.”*
– By Charme Robarts
* From Let Me Walk in Beauty” Attributed to Chief Yellow Lark